The emergence of locally adaptive institutions: Insights from traditional social structures of East African pastoralists

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Humans inhabit the widest range of ecological and social niches of any mammal. Yet each ecological and social environment presents a set of challenges that we must solve in order to successfully inhabit it. We are able to do so by building institutions that can flexibly respond to changing circumstances. Institutions that solve adaptive challenges necessary for human sociality, such as how to resolve conflicts, find mates, and extract and distribute resources, are termed locally adaptive institutions. The design of locally adaptive institutions promotes coordination and cooperation among unrelated individuals, reflecting the constraints of the particular ecological and social challenges to which they are responsive. Institutions generally are enabled by a suite of social and psychological mechanisms, including norm compliance, self-interested design, selective imitation, and cultural group selection among others. The development of locally adaptive institutions are likely to be especially shaped by self-interested design in which agents are sensitive to the payoffs from various norms and choose to enforce and follow those which they anticipate to be most beneficial to themselves. Exogenous shocks, including the advent of material and cultural technologies, population pressures, or even group conflict can contribute to the modification of existing social institutions and the development of new social structures. Using several case examples from traditional east African pastoralist societies, I illustrate how ecological and social pressures shape the development of social norms that underlie locally adaptive social institutions and facilitate continued cooperation in the face of change at scales ranging from local to global.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104257
StatePublished - Dec 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • Applied Mathematics


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